|SERMONS-Pink Slips of Providence|
A Sermon by Dr. Ralph Blair at City Church, New York June 22, 2003
Unemployment here in the city is around 9%? That’s far worse than the national rate of 6.1%. But 6.1% is better than the national average over the last 25 years. So what do these figures mean? Well, it’s one thing to know the figures from the papers. It’s something else to know them from pink slips. With a pink slip in hand, the figure is 100%.
Pink slips aren’t pretty. So why are pink slips pink? Pink is rosy. But pink slips don’t paint rosy pictures. They don’t put you in the pink; they put you in the blues. And then they can put you in the red – that darker shade of pink. At least that’s what fearful fantasies portend.
But can fearful fantasies predict truly? What if first impressions of pink slips are but partial and premature? Of course, they are but partial and premature. By definition, they’re shortsighted. So pink slips are poor predictors of all that’s coming. Mere fantasies cannot truly predict outcomes. And, even if they prefigure some of the circumstances, how can they predict the yet-to-be-lived experience of those circumstances? Of course, they can’t. Every pleasant surprise says so. There’s always much more to it than what we tell ourselves at first. And so there’s always much more to our total experience than the fear we bring upon ourselves by what, at first, we fantasize.
We fantasize unmixed experience. But every actual experience of life is a mixed experience, is it not? Moreover, when the predicted day arrives it’s always in the now, today. And today is something we can get our hands on. We can never get our hands on tomorrow. So no wonder Jesus urged us to live in the now. As he said: "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." So let’s none of us assume to know, ahead of time, the full meaning of any pink slip of rejection and disappointment.
According to the old Northampton Church records, it was on this very day in 1750 that "the Rev’d Jonathan Edwards was dismissed" from his pulpit. He’d refused to bow down to what his Lord once called the blind "traditions of the elders." So the elders fired America’s premier preacher/theologian. And they didn’t have a clue about what they were doing. All they knew was that they didn’t like what he was doing. Yet every one of those bully bureaucrats has been long since a has-been while eminent scholars for centuries have ranked Edwards with Augustine, Calvin and Luther – the world’s seminal theologians. Yale University Press is publishing its multimillion dollar 26-volume critical set of his work and he will soon be the first American religious thinker to be available in toto in digital, searchable form. Scholars come to Yale from all over the world to study his manuscripts. And during this tercentenary of his birth, there will be scholarly convocations throughout the world in celebration and honor of this noble man of God. Though he was grieved deeply on the day of his dismissal, today, as during much of the rest of his busy life as preacher, theologian and president of Princeton, that old flimsy pink slip means nothing but the folly of his faultfinders.
Pink slips of exclusion come in many forms. The early Christians were dismissed from family circles and friendships because they followed Christ. Those rejections must have left large holes in their hearts. And because of their allegiance to Christ, they lost their jobs. So they were left with large holes in their pockets as well. And rejection came to mean even torture and death for these early Christians – as it still means for many today. And yet, even from the beginning, it was seen that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
We, too, have been excluded from some circles and dismissed from others – though not yet put to death for Christ. Of course, rejections of us have not always been for our identity with Christ. We’ve been let go for more mundane reasons – from families, from friendships, from employment, and from marriages. We were dismissed as redundant, expendable, and just too much bother. We’ve had our hearts broken. We’ve had our feelings hurt. And the wounds may remain. The pieces of the past may lie in ruins, seemingly beyond repair. And no matter how one struggles to move on – and, of course, one does move on, one must move on – the injury may still be felt quite keenly. We all know the bitter pain of one kind of dismissal or another, one kind of estrangement or another. Maybe we didn’t ask for it, but then again, maybe we did. But did we contribute to it? No doubt, at some point and in some way. No matter – we’re bereft of someone or something just the same.
But notice. Has it not been in just such painful passage that we have learned what we never learned otherwise? Isn’t it under the duress we do not choose – would never choose – that we tend to grow where we would not otherwise go? And yet, the maturing aftermath does not remove the bitter aftertaste without which there can be no maturing. Might this not be providential?
As tragic as any estrangement can be, there is an estrangement that lies in a yet deeper region of your heart and mine. This absence is a deeper hurt than any hurt has ever invaded. It is a dismissal and estrangement for which each of us, ourselves, is entirely responsible. This is our estrangement from God. This is our pink-slipping of God.
Having broken God’s great heart by dismissing Him, we, too, suffer. One of the consequences of this is an aching hole in your heart and mine. As we’ve noted, it’s what Pascal called the hole in the heart that can be filled only by God and by no one and nothing else. We were created in God’s image, for fellowship with God. And we have dismissed God and are adrift on our own. And yet, even as we drift round and round in our own little circles, we cannot drift outside the wider circle of God’s Providence. And even if we sink in seas of our own undoing, don’t "we sink but deeper into Him," as we’re so often reminded from this pulpit?
Well all the slips of Providence aren’t pink. Some are tender green slips of promise, broken off for engrafting in another garden – "bright shoots of everlastingness." (Henry Vaughan)
Providence comes in a rainbow of colors. Remember that arc of promise above the ark of receding floodwaters when a whole new world of Providence was revealed. And remember Joseph’s coat of "many colors." At first, it was the evidence of his father Jacob’s joy. Then, when it appeared that Joseph had been killed, the empty coat was the evidence for his grief. Yet Jacob lived long enough to see, to his surprise, Joseph alive and well "because of the providential hand of the Mighty One," in Jacob’s words of rejoicing. (Gen 49:24) As with Jacob’s full range of emotions, so Providence is arrayed across the full spectrum of light – like Joseph’s coat of white! The coat of "many colors" was a dazzling white – the range of the rainbow at truest brightness. Surprised? The slips of Providence should be no surprise.
And the slips of Providence are no slip-ups. Slip-ups of Providence would be no Providence at all. Providence does, however, slip up upon us when we’re not looking. So we’re not always prepared to see it, are we? Providence may be smiling upon us. But blankly staring into the brightness of the face of God we’re blinded. We may see nothing then but our own projected disapproval in dark despair.
And Providence can slip past us in imperceptible ingenuity. While Providence is passing by in majesty, we fail to imagine the glory going on. But we’d be wrong to conclude it’s chance. He’s there – in the shadows of dejection as well as in the shallows of distraction. Whether we frolic or fret, Providence slips into place and we’re never the same again.
Popular notions of Providence have been problems for many Christians. And some have concocted little systems of long-winded explanation in order to pin down Providence in their many, many words. Providentially, that’s always been a mistake. For as the poet William Cowper penned in our closing hymn: "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform." God Himself said through the prophet Isaiah: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways. … So shall my word be that goes forth from My mouth. … It shall do what I purpose and accomplish what I commission." (Isa 55:8, 11)
Now if the winds of God’s purpose, like all winds, blow where they will, there’s no taming them for our own pet purposes. But, of course, that’s not stopped theologians from trying to tame them. One attempt at this has been in terms of the philosophical law of non-contradiction – a Western convention that simply cannot capture the word of God revealed in ancient Eastern modes of expression. Asking whether it’s freedom or fate, nature or nurture, an unbounded permissiveness or a binding, pre-programmed predestination is asking wrong questions that give us wrong answers. Such either/or thinking divides Christians into opposing camps of Calvinism and Arminianism. But in this 300th birthday year of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, we honor two wiser representatives of both of these views, and understand that what they more deeply shared was the basic Christianity that’s more deeply biblical than their contrary systems.
Hear the word of the Lord to Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I chose you, I knew you intimately." (Jer 1:5) Paul picks this up and says that God "chose us in Christ before the creation of the world." (Eph 1:4) Here’s David in prayer and praise: "You knit me together in my mother’s womb. … My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together … Your eyes saw my unframed body. All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be." (Ps 139:15-16)
We now know far better than those biblical writers just how it is that these things are so – through research in DNA, neuroscience, fetal development and twin studies and so much more. We know we’re made of stardust traced back to that Big Bang of all beginnings. And we’re genes from generations long since gone back to dust and on to glory. We’re back there before our memories. We’re back there before our births. And besides all that, we’re brought into the world at a particular time and place. We’re neurons and native land. We’re the choices of parents and grandparents and ancestors unknown. We’re the products of parentage and parenting, play and peers. We’re formed by formative years and backed by backgrounds – religious, economic, social, cultural, educational, and all. We’re on this side of significant turning points: a conversation with a teacher, a childhood accident, a father’s transfer, a mother’s death, a seat assignment, a missed plane, a poem – a pink slip. Tracings and turnings of transformations too many to know and too unknown to fathom.
And yet, all along, it can’t be said that we didn’t make choices. It can’t be said that we don’t make choices. When Isaac Singer was asked whether he believed in free will or determinism he said: We have to believe in free will. We have no choice.
But we so believe within an encircling embrace of providential care. As a biblical scholar puts it: "To all appearances [we] are acting simply according to [our] own plans, and yet [we] cannot avoid becoming the instruments of God and acting in reality, according to His plan." (Gerhard von Rad) In the both/and of Scripture, we discover that God is in control but that that’s not quite what it seems at first. In His sovereign grace, God chooses to control what and how He controls. God’s control creates us in such a way that we can, if we choose, resist His goodness. So we read in Scripture that God sets before us life and death and urgently, lovingly, invites us to "Choose life." (Deut 30:19)
In the middle of all our own plans, there’s another Plan of which we’re largely oblivious. The God of Providence has a Purpose that we fail to understand. We can only faithe to perceive it, though dimly. This is true in plans of devout intentions as well as in plans of devious intentions. And behind them all, there is the Master’s Plan of which Wright sang.
Remember that only long after Joseph’s brothers had selfishly sold him into slavery, Joseph was able to see that though his brothers were responsible for their actions in selling him to Egypt, God sent him to Egypt. (Gen 45:4) As Joseph put it at last to his brothers – and so memorably: "You planned it for evil against me but God planned it for good." (Gen 50:20) A Bible scholar notes that this is "the key idea that informs the whole Joseph story, that through sinful men God works out his saving purposes." (Gordon J. Wenham) Another scholar calls this "the inmost mystery of the Joseph story … the climax of the whole." (Gerhard von Rad) He cautions that though we might be curious as to how this works, "this guidance of God is only asserted; nothing more explicit is said about the way in which God incorporated man’s evil into his saving activity." Such a word to the wise should be sufficient.
The prophet Isaiah says that God brought the Assyrian army to punish Israel and yet the Assyrians were responsible for their aggression against Israel. (Isaiah 10:6f, 12)
In Peter’s sermon to fellow Jews at the Temple, he touches on this seeming paradox between the evil plans of the people to do away with Jesus and the overruling Plan of God to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead. Taking up the people’s amazement at the healing, in Jesus’ name, of the lame man at the Temple, Peter says: "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a terrorist be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead." He goes on to note that these onlookers and their leaders had "acted in ignorance" in their part in the crucifixion, but he points out, in biblical exposition, that "this is exactly how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer." (Acts 3)
Paul reminds the Ephesians that God, in his sovereign grace, chose ancient Israel for no merit of her own, for she was no better than others. And God did not choose her for self-indulgence. Rather, God chose her to be a blessing to all. Just so, Paul says, God, in his sovereign grace, chose us in Christ for no merit of our own, for we were no better than others. And God did not choose us for self-indulgence. Rather, God chose us to be a blessing to all. The Apostle indicates that being blameless and holy and loving expresses the blessing God chooses the Church to bestow. (Eph 1:4; cf. Phil 1:9f; I Thess 3:12f)
Well what in God’s world is going on – there in ancient Israel and Egypt, in Jerusalem and Ephesus? What’s going on in God’s world today – here in New York, in your life and mine? Is God a cosmic puppeteer and are we but his comic puppets? Is God nothing but a computer programmer and are we but disposable printouts? Are our wills free or fettered? Does God’s Rule rule out our self-rule?
Until very recently, the problem of free will versus determinism was stuck in a bad habit. The bad habit was the assumption that cause and effect is merely a simple, one-directional process: A causes B, and then B causes C, and then C causes D, and so on – a sort of domino determinism. But now, through recent empirical research, especially on the brain, we discover that causality is circular. So, for example, free will is in a feedback loop. Cause and effect feed off each other. Each contributes, as cause and effect, in a complex interactivity unimagined before.
Well didn’t Paul hint at something of the sort when he wrote that in everything, God cooperates for good with those who love him? (Rom 8:28) God’s will is mediated by way of ours, and ours by way of his. The mystery of God’s love is at work, encircling and embracing all. We’re loved into loving! And God loves that! Don’t you love that? Isn’t that the circle of Providence?
Paul explains that grace is through the blood of Christ, whom he calls "the Beloved," echoing the affectionate "pet name" of Israel – Yeshurun. He remembers the Mosaic vision of Messiah as that single promised Seed of Abram and God’s Chosen One par excellence. (Cf. e.g. Gen 12:3, 7; 13:5; 24:7; Gal 3:16) And the rich grace is, as Paul puts it, "lavished upon us with all wisdom and insight … according to God’s good pleasure which He purposed in Christ." And yet, Paul grants it’s all a mystery of God’s will by which He achieves His everlasting purpose, from before the beginning, "to sum up in Christ, all things in heaven and earth, to the praise of His glory." Paul borrows the term "sum up" from the summing up stage of a rhetorical argument. Thus, Christ, the Living Word, is God’s great summary statement, His grand "And in conclusion," to all His words to us.
It is God and God alone who created the entire universe and created us in His own image, as we read in Genesis. It is by God and God alone that "we live and move and have our being," as Paul quoted a Cretan philosopher as having said. (Acts 17:28) It is God and God alone who can fill the vacuum in the very center of each one’s heart, as Pascal put it. It is in God and God alone – in Christ Jesus – that the entire universe may bow in adoration and every tongue may confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord for the glory of God the Father," as Paul applied the words of Yahweh from Isaiah. (Phil 2:10; Isa 45:23) It is God and God alone to whom we must, at last, give account of ourselves, when "nothing in [our hands] we bring but only to the cross [we] cling," as Myra sang. Then it is God and God alone who will be our Joy where Christ is preparing a place for us, as he promised. (John 14:2)
So Paul could conclude: in a Christian baptizing of the Stoics: "I have learned to be content whatever my circumstances. … I have strength enough to cope with anything through the One who empowers me." (Phil 4:11) If his confidence in Christ brought contentment in circumstances that included shipwreck, beatings and imprisonment, surely his confidence in Christ could not be disturbed by all the pink slips he got at Jerusalem and throughout his missionary journeys to the Gentiles. For, as he reasons to Romans: "If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?" Paul asks rhetorically: "Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture. … None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us." (Rom 8:31-39, translation by Eugene H. Peterson)
Paul’s "confidence rests … on the outworking of God’s purpose through all the contradiction and frustration of the present to its intended end." (James D. G. Dunn) He concludes with characteristic Jewish piety to which he adds God’s coming in Christ: "We know that in everything God cooperates for good with those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified." (Rom 8:28-30)
The final pink slip of Providence is God’s invitation to move on – to move on out and move on up – not to "pink clouds" of silly substitutes of sentimentality but to the pink of health and well-being – the eternal shalom of Christ Jesus, our risen Savior and exalted Lord.
In the meantime, and through all the mean times, however the pink slips of rejection pile up, here’s Jesus’ affirming invitation there among them all: "If you’re sick and tired of coping with things on your own, come to me. Learn from me. Yoke up with me. Live and rest in me." (Matt 11:28) Is not this the partnership of Providence?